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Friday, January 1, 2010

How Do I Love Thee, N-[2-(5-methoxy-1H-indol-3-yl)ethyl] ethanamide? Let Me Count the Ways. . .

In my youth, which is now receding more and more rapidly with every passing year, like a distant red-shifted galaxy about to vanish over the cosmic horizon of mortality, I experimented, it gives me neither pride nor shame to own, with various enhancements to my neurochemistry. Most of these in retrospect were ill-advised (as were many of the decisions of my youth --of necessity, probably, youth providing one with virtually unlimited scope for poor decision making) and I would scarcely care for any of my children (or for that matter professional acquaintances) to encounter, on the great lavatory wall that is the World Wide Web, anything that might be construed as an endorsement on my part of legally dubious alterations to one's personal neurochemical environment. Nowadays I generally have recourse only to the occasional pleasures of judicious titrations of ethanol, which in addition to being one of mankind's most time-honored comforts (especially with the advance of age) is also practically a professional obligation, ever since I started earning my bread and cheese as what is sometimes referred to euphemistically as a hack for the slicks.

In fact, most of the writers and editors I'm privileged to know enjoy a wee dram, either to take the edge off a chilly night, solace one for a lapse in inspiration, or blunt the edge of frustration (peace to the editors) of dealing with the combination of preening egotism and utter professional irresponsibility so characteristic of writers, as a class. One of the most common indications for having recourse to the happy by product of the action of our little friend Saccharomyces cerevisiae (yes, brewer's yeast) on grain or grape sugars, however, in my new-ish circle of acquaintances, is to cope with the fear-unto-death that grips so many of us when confronted with the necessity of boarding an airplane. While frequent air travel has blunted the edge of my once almost paralyzing anxiety about flying it has by no means eliminated it, and my pleasure at generally being able to travel Business class (on the dime of the brands who are kind enough to make my overseas excursions possible) is often mixed with a certain anthropological fascination at the sight of Business class departure lounges, in which a regular percentage of travelers can reliably be found, grimly or joyfully according to their lights (and livers) getting outside of a few ounces of their favorite tipple as a way of anaesthetizing themselves against the reality of spending the next eight hours being shot through the thin, freezing air of the stratosphere at hundreds of miles an hour.

While I yield to no one in my admiration for the practicality of this strategy I also have been encouraged, on many occasions, to try something with a little less in the way of undesirable side effects. Ethanol, as I still remember from my teaching days, inhibits the production of antidiuretic hormone in the pituitary gland, worsening the effects of dehydration experienced during air travel, and it also produces metabolic by-products like acetaldehyde which one is better off without. In sum, the problem is that enough ethanol to produce a really effective state of full-speed-ahead, damn-the-torpedoes carelessness is also enough to produce a host of unpleasant sequelae. Generally I find the game worth the candle, at least when it comes to fear of flying, but I consider myself obliged to keep an open mind when it comes to improving, psychiatrically speaking, on the gifts of nature, and in the course of things this year, found myself discussing with someone in a position to offer a reliable professional opinion, whether exogenous N-[2-(5 methoxy-1H-indol-3-yl)ethyl] ethanamide --melatonin, in other words --might not prove a more practical alternative.

Melatonin is interesting stuff. It's been used as a sleep inducer and cure for jet lag for --well, I don't know how many years, but certainly the folks I know who use it swear by it, and my reluctance to try it has been partly due to sheer force of habit and partly due to a suspicion that anything the body manufactures in microgram amounts (melatonin is made in the pineal gland, and is thought to regulate wakefulness) is probably risky to take in milligram doses. A little digging around, however, revealed that melatonin appears to have a very low toxicity (the average supplement delivers 3mg of the stuff per pill, and you apparently have to take something like 200 mg/kg/day before adverse effects become noticeable) and, having had a lifelong problem with insomnia as well, I decided, with some trepidation, to give the stuff a shot.

All the wasted years. Melatonin has been, so far, a godsend. In addition to being extremely effective as an hypnotic during flying (nothing passes the time, even in Business, like shuffling off to Dreamland as quickly as possible) I've found it to be the first therapeutic in any pharmacopia (including various herbal remedies, which historically have been spectacularly ineffective --sorry, Jade Emperor, your Special Pill to Calm the Heart was about as effective against my insomnia as a BB gun against a dreadnought) that's made a dent in the chronic insomnia upon which I've counted to help me beat 11nth hour deadlines since high school. I think I've probably gotten more solid 7 hour blocks of uninterrupted sleep in the last month, since discovering melatonin, than in the entire previous . . . well, I don't want to say how many years. On top of that the stuff's apparently an antioxidant, potentially therapeutic for mood disorders, may have antineoplastic properties, and on top of that, it might even be good for gallstones.

Probably I'll find out in a few years that regular exposure to the stuff makes your nose turn green and fall off, but until I hear otherwise, huzzars for melatonin, says I. Between that and over the counter ibuprofen, the regular business traveler need fear no evil.